Book Review: “Turning Pro,” by Steven Pressfield

Steven Pressfield’s new book, Turning Pro, is tough love for fiction writers. Pressfield’s thesis is that what ails some writers is they are living as amateurs. The solution is to turn pro.

“Turning pro is free, but it’s not easy,” Pressfield wrote. There is a lot of hard-earned wisdom in this book, but the nugget that stuck for me was this: “The difference between an amateur and a professional is in their habits. A professional has professional habits.”

Many people who aspire to be a writer or excel in other professions engage in what Pressfield called “shadow careers.” Shadow careers are metaphors for what people want. “Are you getting your Ph.D. in Elizabethan studies because you’re afraid to write the tragedies and comedies you know you have inside you? Are you living the drugs-and-booze half of the musician’s life without actually writing the music?”

The attributes of a shadow life are denial and addiction. Addiction, Pressfield wrote, is “excruciatingly boring. It’s boring because it’s predictable – the lies, the evasions, the transparent self-justifications and self-exonerations.”

Many artists are addicts, but they are just running away from their craft. “We enact the addiction instead of embracing the calling. Why? Because to follow the calling requires work. It’s hard. It hurts.” Amateurs give in to what Pressfield called Resistance. “Resistance hates two qualities above all others: concentration and depth. Why? Because when we work with focus and we work deep, we succeed.”

Resistance, on the other hand, keeps the amateur unfocused. “Have you checked your email in the last half hour?”

Another quality of the amateur is narcissism. “He continuously rates himself in relation to others, becoming self-inflated if his fortunes rise, and desperately anxious if his star should fall.” The amateur lets fear paralyze him, is easily distracted and seeks instant gratification.

Turning pro changes your life. “When we turn pro, we stop running from our fears. We turn around and face them.” The pro structures his hours differently. “We plan our activities in order to accomplish an aim. And we bring our will to bear so that we stick to this resolution.”

One of the most valuable parts of this book is a list from his earlier work, The War of Art, of the qualities of a professional. Among these are:

  1. The professional shows up every day.
  2. The professional stays on the job all day.
  3. The professional is committed over the long haul.
  4. For the professional, the stakes are high and real.
  5. The professional is patient.
  6. The professional seeks order.
  7. The professional demystifies.
  8. The professional acts in the face of fear.
  9. The professional accepts no excuses.
  10. The professional plays it as it lays.
  11. The professional is prepared.

In Turning Pro, Pressfield lists some additional qualities. The professional is courageous, will not be distracted (“The amateur tweets. The pro works.”), is ruthless with himself, has compassion for himself, lives in the present, and defers gratification. And, the professional does not wait for inspiration. “He knows that when the muse sees his butt in the chair, she will deliver.”

The professional does the work for itself and no other reason. “When we do the work for itself alone, our pursuit of a career (or a loving or fame or wealth or notoriety) turns into something else, something loftier and nobler, which may never even have thought about or aspired to at the beginning. It turns into a practice.”

While Turning Pro focuses on the habits of writers, Pressfield also throws in some craft advice. He urges writers to work over their heads, write what they don’t know, and take what the defense gives you. Professionals also know how to play hurt, to keep writing when facing adversity.

On a recent Saturday morning, I slept in. It was a brilliant summer day and I was headed to the beach later. That evening I ran into a published author, who told me he awoke at six o’clock in the morning and wrote for a couple of hours. He was finished writing before I even woke up that morning. That’s what I call a pro.

Do you see yourself as a pro? What habits make you a pro?

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Book Review: “Turning Pro,” by Steven Pressfield

  1. I love – and live – the “shows up every day” one! ;-D

    as always, a thorough and well-thought-out review!

  2. Myke Britt

    My (148 page) novel; In the Name of Justice, just went out of print in August after seven years with PublishAmerica. Other than a couple of small bookstores Walden Books stocked it in one location with a fairly good booksigning.
    I am trying to decide if I want to re-write, change and add to it and seek an agent but at seventy seven years young I don’t have the zeal for writing and marketing I once had,
    Any advice??
    Myrlen (Myke) Britt

    • Myke,
      Thanks for your comment and question. Whether you wish to revise and re-release your novel depends on several factors: do you own the rights? Do you have significant changes in mind that would give the novel fresh appeal? Do you have a strong platform from which to market the novel? Do you have the energy to do all it will take to sell the book? I can’t answer these for you, but these are the questions and considerations to think about. I hope this is helpful. Thanks for your comment.

      • Myke Britt

        I published my first (of six books) in 2001 through a small house; Main Street Publishing, in Jackson, Tn owned by an aquaintance and author d n english (sic). I followed with three additional ones through MSP, paying publishing costs but receiving great support with books signings and local media coverage. They are soft cover around 150/160 pages of short stories, essays and poetry/prose. From these books I began submitting to a national magazine owned now owned by Reader’s Digest and have sold them several essay about my childhood inthe 1940’s.

        I consolidated all my short stories and added some new ones last year and published my first hard back with dust cover with XLIBRIS, it is also the only one available on Kindle/Nook, etc. It is basically southern so I named it SOUL OF THE SOUTH.

        I have had my greatest success with my first four books I call my West Tennessee Taproot series, selling several hundred copies of the four.

        I love to write children’s stories and still do a couple a year for my eight year old granddaughter.

        I appreciate your commenta and will try to find my Muse who seems to be on an extended vacation. I have put your site in my favorites and continue to follow it.
        Tanks; Myke

      • Myke,
        Thanks for your comments. You have been prolific in writing and getting published. There may be opportunities to take your past work and publish it on Amazon. If you have the rights. Thanks for your kind words about my blog.

  3. Myke Britt

    Thanks for your reply. I own 100% rights to all six of my books but the energy level to promote just isn’t where it used to be.
    My website is being re-done by FreeWebs so I have lost a lot of info from the old one.
    Last year the publisher of a new SOUTHERN WRITERS’S MAGAZINE read some of my work on the old site and did a telephone interview with me. It is scheduled to appear in the Nov/Dec issue (full page) I believe. Since this is what we referred to in retail as a “trade publication” or industry magazine I’m excited about the exposure to possible agents and publishers.

    The mag can be viewed at southernwritersmagazine.com if you are interested. It is published in Collierville (Metro Memphis) Tn.
    I’m looking forward to checking out your site regularly.
    Regards, Myke

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